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NASA’s Deep Space Gateway is key to a bold plan for Mars and beyond

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Initiated in 1998 and completed in 2011, the International Space Station is celebrated as a remarkable feat of engineering, as well as a home away from home for astronauts who have lived and worked aboard the outpost in orbit.

But with the ISS scheduled for retirement in 2028, NASA is now making bold plans for the next phase of human spaceflight. The plans require astronauts to return to the moon and then venture deeper into space. As President Trump said in December, these will be the first steps towards "an eventual mission to Mars and perhaps someday to many worlds beyond."

A new space station is key to NASA's plans. Unlike the ISS, the proposed Deep Space Gateway (DSG) will orbit the moon instead of the Earth. Your crew will live and work over a quarter of a million kilometers from your home, a thousand times more distant than the ISS. While NASA does not have an immediate plan to put astronauts on the lunar surface, something we have not done since the Apollo missions came to an end in 1972, putting the DSG will mark the first time in 45 years that humans will have ventured beyond the low -Earth orbit.

It is a substantial company, with a new powerful rocket and a new capsule for the crew among the hardware requirements. The final cost would surely exceed that of the estimated $ 125 billion needed to build and operate the ISS. Even if Congress approves the necessary funds, the construction of the DSG will require NASA to join international partners and the private sector. NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, issued an informal joint statement on cooperation last September; Japanese and Canadian space agencies have also expressed interest.

But nothing is true, and space stations and manned space flights in general have had powerful criticisms. One of the most prominent is Dr. Steven Weinberg, the theoretical physicist who won the Nobel Prize. He called the ISS an "orbital turkey" and said that "human beings do not fulfill any useful function in space."

A challenging environment

What would life be like in the Portal? Solitaire, to begin with. From the ISS, the Earth looks great. At night, bright patches of light visible through the windows of the station mark the great cities of the world. But for the DSG astronauts, our planet will appear barely wider than a thumb held with the arm extended. Help, if necessary, be weeks away. In contrast, the ISS can be evacuated in a matter of hours.

And the environment of deep space is intrinsically risky; Radiation, including high-energy cosmic rays, would pose a constant danger to astronauts.


"It will be a challenging environment, without a doubt," says Dr. Chris Impey, an astronomer at the University of Arizona and the author of "Beyond: Our Future in Space." "It would be much narrower [than the ISS] … I think the psychological tensions of being at the Gateway for months or years would start to pile up."

Even getting to the DSG will be a challenge. A new heavy launch vehicle, known as the Space Launch System, will be required. Now under development, the SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built, producing more thrust than the Saturn V rocket used for the Apollo missions. The SLS, along with another planned craft, the Orion crew capsule, will elevate the astronauts first into orbit around the Earth and then into the lunar orbit.

NASA's Space Launch System, seen in the representation of this artist, is considered the most powerful rocket in the world. NASA

There are solid arguments to make the moon, or its immediate environment, the next logical destination for human spaceflight. "It's a natural progression," says Impey. "The idea of ​​eventually moving beyond Earth depends on it being a routine to live and work in space, stay healthy, feed and replenish its station," an effort that began in earnest with the ISS and would continue with the proposed Portal. .

And, says Impey, in the low-gravity environment of the DSG, "you are freed from the exploration of the solar system [pursue]"

Step to Mars

After the lunar orbit, the next obvious destination for The crews of DSG would be the lunar surface, last visited by Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in December 1972. And then – eventually – Mars.

The DGS "would serve as a gateway to deep space," Cheryl Warner, spokeswoman for the NASA Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, told NBC News MACH in an email, adding that the space region near the moon – the technical name is "cislunar space" – offers "a true deep space" environment where you can gain experience for human missions that delve further into the solar system, including Mars. "

Warner points out that the exact design of the station has not yet been set, although it will include a propulsion system and a habitat for the crew.

NASA is already far away in some of the key components: an unmanned test flight of the SLS, called Exploration Mission-1, is scheduled for December 2019. The goal is to send an Orion capsule around the moon and deploy half a dozen satellites, a second mission, planned for 2022, would be the first It was with a team, after that, NASA aims to make flights at a rate of about one per year.

NASA astronauts practice an emergency exit from the Orion capsule in the Gulf of Mexico in 2017. Mark Mulligan / Houston Chronicle via AP

At the end of the 2020s, NASA expects Conduct a one-year mission to "validate the willingness of the system to travel beyond the Earth-Moon system to Mars and other destinations," the agency said in a statement last spring.

In addition to sending humans farther from home than we have been in 50 years, the gateway will facilitate cutting-edge science. Last fall, NASA launched a call for proposals for experiments based on DSG; these will be the subject of a workshop to be held in Denver next month. NASA expects proposals for "planetary science, astrophysics, Earth observations, heliophysics [solar physics] fundamental spatial biology and human health and performance".

The imperative to explore

Many space flight experts believe that no matter how much science can be done on board the DSG, the project can not be justified only for scientific reasons.

"Yes, you can do a bit of science, but science is very low on the list, and it's not the motivating factor." says Dr. Richard Binzel, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He says that a massive company like the Deep Space Gate makes sense only as a springboard to the red planet.

"If we are ever going to Mars, we have to learn to operate far from Earth," he said. He says. "We need that operational experience, and I think that's the motivation of Deep Space Gateway: to get operational experience away from the comfort zone of low Earth orbit."

Of course, the ultimate reason for the momentum for the Gateway to deep space – and later, Mars: stems from the conviction that humans must, eventually, leave our planet of origin. Binzel quotes rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who once said: "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but you can not live in a cradle forever."

The robotic space missions, which have already visited all the planets of the incredibly successful solar system, and these have been much cheaper than any mission involving a human crew. And yet, says Binzel, the idea of ​​humans in space awakens the imagination in a way that no robotic mission can: "There is something shocking about a human being in space, which is difficult to quantify. human curiosity, the human imperative of being explorers. "

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